Along with many, I’m of the opinion that CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is one of the best – if not the best – open world RPGs ever made.
It improved the open-world template in so many ways that make the genre such an engaging experience while enhancing the ability to tell a good story while it was at it.
One of my personal gripes with open world games in general is that they seem to sacrifice good storytelling in exchange for a sandbox environment where you can go and do what you like in whatever order you wish. I get the appeal. This is, after all, one of the central things that make video games stand out from other mediums in that the experience can be non-linear; we are in control of what happens rather than being a bystander watching on from the sidelines.
But as someone who grew up playing the more linear and story-focused RPGs of the 90s, I’m far more partial to a well-told story than I am a game that allows me to do as I like. The Witcher 3, however, bridges the gap between the two wonderfully. It might not have had the most engaging central thread, but the way it went about making all the smaller narratives and side quests interesting is what strikes me as the release’s most significant achievement.
The Witcher 3 was so good at making me care about everything that I did – be it a witcher contract or even just finding someone’s lost property – that when Bethesda’s Fallout 4 was released a few months later, it simply fell a little flat for me. It was a good game, but the side quests and the world just didn’t live up to what I’d received from CD Projekt Red’s masterpiece. There were very few characters that I cared about, and I never really felt any sense of connection to what I was doing or why. I was merely playing a game.
But maybe I was wrong. Maybe I was just caught up in that post-Witcher lull that always happens after finishing a game that you spend so much time playing. It’s like when a really close friend moves away from home; nothing will replace them, and you sit there feeling sorry for yourself, comparing everything to what you once had.
There’s definitely something unique about Bethesda’s games, though. I thought going back to Skyrim – no matter how much better it looks on PS4 – was going to be a letdown after playing a game like The Witcher 3. But after mulling it over for a little while, I no longer compare all open-world games to that behemoth. I can now see what make’s Bethesda’s work different from that of CD Projekt Red – and in a good way.
It’s the sense of place and location that you get in Skyrim that strikes me the most. This is something I never really felt in The Witcher 3, and perhaps this is partly down to the first-person perspective rather than the more distanced third-person view. That sense of being there in that moment is almost palpable in the land of the Nords.
I’ll happily spend hours just walking around Skyrim picking up flowers for my alchemy or exploring nearby caves. I never did this as the White Wolf of Rivia. While Geralt’s story might be more engaging as a controlled substance – leading you from one place to the next through streams of quests and exclamation marks on your mini-map – Skyrim‘s story is about being yourself and about being in the moment. The story is your own, and you truly go where you will. You make that story whatever you want it to be.
For all its positive points, this sense of discovery isn’t at the same level in Geralt’s adventure. In Skyrim, even the way miscellaneous quests appear in your log from overhearing conversations or speaking to the local barkeep come across as discovered moments rather than a pre-scripted agenda. Some of these only show up if you happen to be in a particular place at the right time and at the same moment as someone else.
And that’s why, I think, even five years after its initial release, Skyrim still stands up today. It might not be as engaging from a quest design point of view, and it certainly doesn’t look as pretty as some newer releases – even if it doesn’t look bad by any means – but in its ability to submerge the player within its world and appreciate each and every moment as it happens, it truly is, to me, unparalleled.